An Oak Park and River Forest High School student’s hasty decision on Oct. 8 to post to Snapchat photo of himself in blackface set off an explosive chain of events — including the suspensions of the student and popular teacher and activist Anthony Clark — that culminated in around 50 people marching in the pouring rain on Saturday in Oak Park. 

The racially offensive photo, posted by a 17-year-old OPRF senior, shows the teenager wearing what he would later describe as a black charcoal exfoliating face mask.

“Vote me for BLU president,” read the caption above the picture of the student in blackface. Underneath that statement he wrote, “For those who don’t know BLU is Black Leaders Union,” and inserted an emoji depicting a neutral face beside the bottom caption.

School officials placed Clark on paid administrative leave for reposting the photo to Facebook a few days before the school suspended the student for sharing the photo to Snapchat. 

In a statement read over the school’s PA system last Thursday morning, Black Leaders Union President Kennedy Holliday and Student Council President Sydney Rayburn acknowledged that many students were “hurt and angry” about the Snapchat post, but disagreed with students who said they wanted to post a copy of the photo with the student’s address.

“We understand these feelings,” they stated. “But acting on them solves nothing. Instead of lashing out at an individual, we ask that our community instead focus on the much bigger issue of institutional racism.”

Late last week, a change.org petition was created, demanding that the D200 school board reinstate Clark at OPRF. 

“We are members of the community who strongly oppose the racist actions of District 200 in their unjust suspension of OPRF faculty member Anthony Clark,” the petition reads, adding that, despite the steps Clark took to try mitigating the situation, the district, “without investigating the matter fully,” suspended the teacher. 

On Saturday, the marchers voiced various demands, including reinstating Clark and demanding the school become more aggressive addressing racism —both structural and individual in nature. 

“We’re here for Anthony, but we’re also here for the educators who advocate for all of our children,” said one of the organizers of the march, which included around 50 people who walked from the Oak Park Public Library east to the Farmers Market. 

“Whether our children are LGBTQ, Asian, white, whatever, Anthony advocates for our children. It’s not about this incident. It’s about things that have been happening for a very long time. We need to make the high school accountable. Students of color do not have the same experiences as their counterparts and that’s a problem.”

Mark Iocca, a lawyer who works in Springfield but whose family resides in Oak Park, attended the march with his daughter, OPRF freshman Caroline Iocca. 

“It’s outrageous what they’re doing,” Mark Iocca said of the school’s decision to suspend Clark. “I’m so sick of the kneejerk reactions. That’s all this is and it causes things like this march. Why don’t you address the real issue and leave the heroes alone?” 

Jonny Hugh, an Oak Park eighth-grader, said that he learned about Clark’s suspension from his mother. 

“I felt that it was completely wrong that they would suspend him for doing the right thing, even if he did break a rule,” Hugh said. 

Aisha Coleman, an OPRF parent and member of Suburban Unity Alliance, the nonprofit Clark founded last year to fight racism in the suburbs, said that the district needs to address a range of structural issues that aren’t often addressed, such as the lack of minority representation in high-level courses and in curricula. 

“I’ve had conversations with my daughter, who is a senior, about how she is often the only black, or one of two black kids, in her class,” Coleman said. “Why is that? She takes honors and AP classes. If you’re taking an AP English class, what are you learning? You’re learning about white people. You’re being taught by white people. You’re in class with white people. 

“But on the other hand, African-American history is an elective. Why is that? When you reduce us to an elective, how does that make our children feel? It’s a problem and we should not be OK with that. If the roles were reversed, I’m pretty sure our white counterparts wouldn’t want that for our children.” 

The catalyst for the outcry among community members expressed both in public and online was what the 17-year-old described as a stupid “off-handed joke.” 

Within a few hours of sharing the blackface photo on Oct. 8, the teenager had removed the offensive post, replacing it with an apology. But, by Oct. 9 a screenshot of the photo with the words, “hi racism!” scrawled in neon green digital handwriting scrolling across the bottom had been shared many times.

In an interview with Wednesday Journal on Oct. 9, the student apologized for the post, saying that he was exfoliating with a black charcoal face mask at a friend’s house when he posted the photo “as an off-handed joke.” He said that he’s marched in anti-racism demonstrations with Clark and has volunteered with Clark’s campaign for Congress. 

“I want to make sure that everyone knows how I feel, that I’m very regretful and would love to learn from this experience,” the student said, adding that he doesn’t consider himself a victim. “People’s anger is justified. I did not check my white privilege. I did not think about what I posted. There’s no excuse. I did this and I take responsibility for my actions.”

Clark, who confirmed that he knows the student and said that he was trying to mitigate the situation, uploaded the photo to Facebook a day after the photo had been circulating among students and community members. 

Clark said that at the time he didn’t know who the person in the photo was, but after learning the student’s identity and meeting with the student, he decided to remove the photo.

The teacher had been planning to host a meeting between the student and members of BLU at his home last Wednesday, in addition to a larger community meeting on race relations this week, but the teacher said he had to call off the meetings after he was suspended with pay. 

Last Tuesday, District 200 Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams released a statement in which she said that the district is “deeply concerned not only about the harm done by the original post but also about the current level of disruption to the educational environment being created by subsequent social media posts related to the incident.”

While district officials would not comment on Clark’s suspension, the district’s policy contains language similar to Pruitt-Adams’ statement. The policy states that employee use of social media shall “not interfere with or disrupt the educational or working environment, or the delivery of education or educational support services.”

“Oak Park and River Forest pride themselves on being progressive and liberal,” Holliday and Rayburn said in their statement. “But when people of color try to speak out about micro-aggressions, too often the response is no, that doesn’t exist here, and we get shut down.” 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com  

A timeline of a tumultuous week at OPRF

Sunday, Oct. 8 | A 17-year-old OPRF senior posts to Snapchat a photo of himself in blackface accompanied by a caption that claims he’s running for president of the Black Leaders Union. Hours later, he removes the post and puts up an apology, but not before it is screenshot and shared many times. 

Monday, Oct. 9 | In an effort to diffuse the fallout from the photo, OPRF special ed teacher, local activist and Congressional candidate Anthony Clark posts the offensive photo to Facebook, along with a message promoting unity. He schedules a meeting between the student and BLU leaders for Wednesday and a community meeting the following week. 

Tuesday, Oct. 10 | Anthony Clark is placed on paid leave by D200 officials, who decline to discuss personnel matters. A statement the district released the same day indicates that Clark could have violated district social media policies. The planned meetings are cancelled.

Thursday, Oct. 12 | The OPRF student who posted the Snapchat photo is suspended. A statement from the presidents of the Black Leaders Union and Student Council is read over the school’s PA system that morning. 

Friday, Oct. 13 | OPRF officials announce in a robocall to parents that they’ve received an  “anonymous letter via regular mail threatening violence during tomorrow’s homecoming dance.” The letter “did not mention race and we have no indication that this threat is connected to events surrounding” racially insensitive social media posts. Security is beefed up for the night’s football game and Saturday’s dance, which appears to go off without a hitch. 

There are unconfirmed reports of a student suspended for creating a meme depicting Anthony Clark as Icarus from Greek myth, which was widely circulated,” according to an anonymous source at the high school. 

Saturday, Oct. 14 | Around 50 people march from the Oak Park Public Library to the Farmers Market in support of Clark.

Monday, Oct. 16 | The Black Leaders Union hosts an open discussion for students affected by racially charged incidents at the high school. 

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